The Power of Polenta

People tend to be intimidated by polenta. It has a reputation of being difficult to make and takes hours of stirring over a boiling pot to make it perfect. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Polenta is super easy to make, doesn’t really take that long, and can be a transformative experience. Armed with a few simple tips on how to handle it correctly, you can use polenta to make an everyday meal something truly memorable.

Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Poached Cherries over Creamy Polenta

Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Poached Cherries and Pecans over Creamy Polenta

At it very basic, polenta is made by quickly whisking corn grits into a boiling liquid then allowing the mixture to thicken. A paisan food, it comes from cultures without pretension. And while there is nothing fancy about polenta itself, it can be the centerpiece of any elegant dish.

There are two kinds of polenta and while each is delicious, both serve a unique purpose. There is creamy polenta and hard polenta. The difference can be defined with one word.

Dairy.

Creamy polenta has a soft, buttery texture and will literally melt in your mouth as you eat it. This is accomplished by adding dairy product, usually butter, milk and a soft  cheese such as mascarpone.

Because it is so versatile, creamy polenta goes with most proteins, from pork to chicken to beef or even fish. It also has enough body to be the centerpiece of an amazing appetizer,
such as polenta with Italian Sausage and parmesan.

It can be fried. It can be served as breakfast. Or its creamy texture and mildly sweet flavor even lends itself to be used to anchor a dessert.

Soft polenta’s luxurious mouth feel causes it to be a primary flavor in whatever dish you include it in. Smother it with sautéed mushrooms or douse it in a pool of tomato sauce, the taste of the creamy polenta will still shine through

Hard polenta — which is made with chicken stock or water, but no dairy – has one benefit that creamy polenta lacks: It’s really easy to grill. Because there is no dairy, it is far less
likely to stick to the grill. But the sugars in the corn meal also mean it will display grill marks brilliantly.

Grilled Polenta under Marinated Flank Steak

Grilled Polenta under Marinated Flank Steak

Another advantage is that grilled polenta be cut into any shape you want – triangles, squares, discs, even stars. You can stack it, shingle it or lay it flat. Because of its geometric
versatility, grilled polenta gives you a lot more plating options than its creamy counterpart.

Hard polenta also is relatively flavor neutral, meaning you can pair it with sweet or savory, and it will take a back seat to the food you pair it with. This makes it a nice base for appetizers and entrees.

Corn grits come in white or yellow, and in a variety of textures, from smooth to coarse. Although you can use either color or any texture to make polenta, traditionally coarse yellow corn grits are used.

Some corn grits are sold as polenta, but there’s no need to make a special purchase. You can use any corn meal or grits you already have and it will still work.

The process for cooking hard polenta versus creamy polenta are essentially the same – whisking corn meal into boiling liquid. The difference is with hard polenta you use just chicken stock and/or water, and for soft you use dairy product and/or water.

I didn’t specify milk because you can use milk, half and half, heavy cream or combination of all three.  In some kitchens where I worked, we would use whatever various liquid dairy products were left over to make the creamy polenta.

Creamy polenta usually is also fortified at the end with generous amounts of butter and cheese, usually a soft white, sweet cheese such as mascarpone. But you can use cream cheese, Neufchatel, shredded cheddar or anything you want.

Here’s a basic recipe for hard polenta:

3 cups chicken stock (and/or water)

1 cup corn grits

¼ tsp salt

¼ tsp white pepper (or black, either way)

Bring the chicken stock to a boil. Slowly whisk in the corn meal and return to a boil. Lower the heat to medium and continue to whisk until the polenta starts to pull away from the walls of the pot, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and remove from heat. Use a spatula to transfer to a sprayed or non-stick ½ sheet pan or a 9”x9” baking pan and spread evenly. Allow to cool completely then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour to harden. Use a knife to cut into whatever shapes you want. Before grilling, spray both sides and the grill with cooking spray.

Now here’s a recipe for creamy polenta:

2 cups dairy (milk, cream or half and half)

1 cup chicken stock

1 cup corn grits

¼ tsp salt

¼ tsp white pepper (again, black is also fine)

3 TBS unsalted butter

1 or 2 TBS mascarpone

¼ cup grated parmesan

Same recipe as above, except after you remove it from the heat, add the butter and cheeses. Cover and keep warm until ready to serve.

Wild Mushrooms and Polenta Appetizer

Wild Mushrooms and Polenta Appetizer

For plating, try covering the bottom of an appetizer dish with a basic tomato sauce, place a nice pile of creamy polenta in the center of the plate, then top it with some grilled Italian sausage garnished with a few pieces of freshly grated parmesan.

Another option is to cover the bottom of an appetizer dish with a brown mushroom sauce, center the creamy polenta, then top with sautéed wild mushrooms and fresh herbs.

You can buy polenta that is already made and comes in a tube, but why would you? It’s super easy to make and those tend to be quite flavorless. Yours will have so much more flavor.

Grilled Italian Sausage with Creamy Polenta and Shaved Parmesan

Grilled Italian Sausage with Creamy Polenta and Shaved Parmesan

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